Profiles In Nursing

Christiane Reimann (1888-1979) and the International Council of Nurses

This headstrong heiress was a realistic visionary

A picture of a pink building on the left and a photo of Christiane Reimann on the right

A quick review of nursing history reveals that many of our forebears were formidable personalities. No one liked to cross Florence Nightingale or Dorothea Dix, and the same could certainly be said of Christiane Reimann. Descriptions of her range from “uncompromising” to “always ready to give her opinion.”

Yet, Reimann led an international nursing organization through some of its most contentious times — and later left a substantial fortune that established what’s often referred to as “the Nobel Prize for nursing.”

“A Nurse Is Not a Lady”

Her single-mindedness first manifested itself in a big way when Reimann, the daughter of an affluent family in Copenhagen, Denmark, first became a nurse despite strong family opposition. “When I decided to become a nurse, my parents were distraught,” she later recalled. “My uncle would not even shake hands with me, declaring ‘a nurse is not a lady.’ ”

Not to be deterred, Reimann completed her training at Bispebjerg Hospital in 1916. At the end of World War I in 1918, she sailed on the first postwar ship from Copenhagen to New York, dodging leftover naval mines and icebergs the whole way.

By 1925, she had obtained both her bachelor’s degree and her master’s degree in nursing from Teachers College, Columbia University, making her the first ever graduate-prepared Danish nurse. Her studies brought her into contact with many contemporary American nursing leaders, including educators Mary Adelaide Nutting and Isabel Maitland Stewart, then members of the Teachers College nursing faculty.

Joining the ICN

Reimann also joined the International Council of Nurses (ICN), realizing that despite their great disparities, nurses around the world needed to be united.

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Founded in 1899, the ICN was originally a federation of national nursing organizations. Because of the early ICN leaders’ close ties to the women’s movement, several nations were originally reluctant to join, including Reimann’s native Denmark.

Following the retirement of ICN cofounder and Secretary Lavinia Dock in 1922, Reimann was elected as ICN secretary, an unpaid position that she held in addition to her clinical work and continuing studies. In 1925, she was elected executive secretary, making her the organization’s first paid officer.

A Realistic Visionary

The job suited her talents perfectly. She was intelligent and accomplished, fluent in several languages and had great energy. She was also that rare creature: a visionary who remained realistic. Just as importantly, she was independently wealthy, having inherited a considerable fortune following her parents’ deaths. All this bolstered her efforts to forge ICN into a true international voice for nursing.

First, Reimann established an advisory group to consult with governmental and public health organizations. She then arranged to join forces with other organizations that employed nurses, like the Red Cross. In a more controversial move, she also sought affiliations with labor groups, hoping to see nurses unionize.

A second ambition was to maintain meaningful collaborations with individual national nursing organizations. To that end, she traveled extensively, often at her own expense. Thanks to her efforts, ICN membership grew from 13 to 29 countries. She also fostered a successful international nurse exchange program.

Closest to Reimann’s heart was the founding of an international nursing journal, first called The Bulletin, later renamed the International Nursing Review. Again, she originally funded the journal with her own money and also wrote most of the earliest articles. To support the journal, she founded a library in ICN’s Geneva headquarters that lent books internationally.

Hiring Now

These efforts eventually led her to clash with other members of the ICN board of directors. Even though her money financed many ICN activities, Reimann’s autocratic ways were a constant irritant to her colleagues. As her power grew, so too did opposition to it.

By 1934, she was out, ostensibly due to poor health. She then moved to Italy and married a German psychiatrist. Although the union did not last, she remained for the rest of her life in Syracuse, Italy, where she had purchased a citrus farm.

“Bad Italian Opera”

From her villa in Syracuse, Reimann continued to follow ICN events. In 1967, she offered the organization her home as a nursing retreat, which the ICN ultimately rejected because the house was in poor repair and would have been too expensive to maintain. (Today, Ville Reimann is owned by the city of Syracuse, which has made some of the land into a public park.)

Reimann also proposed leaving ICN part of her fortune to establish a prestigious international nursing prize. Although it was a generous offer, the negotiations dragged on for over a decade. Even in her 80s, Reimann remained as unbending as ever, frustrating two successive ICN executive directors.

Adele Herwitz, RN, MSN, ICN’s executive director in the ‘70s, later described her endless arguments with Reimann as “bad Italian opera, except I don’t know how to sing and couldn’t get off the stage.”

Six years after Reimann’s death in 1979, ICN awarded the first Christiane Reimann Prize. The prize is now awarded every four years to a registered nurse who has demonstrated — as did Reimann — considerable effort in furthering the cause of nursing or of mankind.

Ironically, the first winner was theorist Virginia Henderson, RN, M.A., a nurse admired as much for her winning personality as for her influential work.

ELIZABETH HANINK, RN, BSN, PHN, is a Working Nurse staff writer with extensive hospital and community-based nursing experience.

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